Tim Sullivan, who spent the last decade of an outstanding journalism career as the supremely talented columnist at U-T San Diego (formerly the San Diego Union-Tribune), was fired last week. The newspaper's president and CEO, a vengeful weasel named John Lynch, made the move out of spite because of something Tim had written six years earlier.
Here's an account of the situation from Dave Kindred of Indiana University's National Sports Journalism Center:
He was at work on the Mike Trout column when a window opened on his computer screen. At 3 p.m. Friday, he had an appointment with the paper’s editor, Jeff Light.
The note was ominous. Six years before, Sullivan had made an enemy. That man was now his newspaper’s president and CEO. He had criticized XX Sports Radio station owner John Lynch for “heavy-handed” editorials in favor of a new stadium for the San Diego Chargers. “The man has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer,” Sullivan wrote of Lynch, and then quoted a Lynch editorial threatening the city attorney: “If you attempt to be an obstructionist in a county or other deal with the Chargers, we will lead a campaign to recall you. That’s a promise and we will spend whatever it takes to remove you from office.”
Then, in November 2011, San Diego hotel magnate Doug Manchester bought the newspaper and installed Lynch as its top executive. The Voice of San Diego, a non-profit news organization, reported that Lynch wanted the U-T sports page “to be an advocate for a new football stadium” and quoted him saying the paper should “call out those who don’t as obstructionists.”
A journalistic product of the Watergate era – reporters as skeptics, as idealists – Sullivan didn’t like anything Lynch said. He went to Light with misgivings about their new boss. Sullivan says he wanted to provide Light “the background on what I had written about Lynch and to express my ethical concerns going forward. I told him then that I was not in a position to quit on principle but that I was worried that Lynch’s interview had inflicted serious damage to the paper’s credibility and that his leadership would result in compromised standards.” Sullivan also says he “expressed concern that (Lynch’s) heavy-handed ways had not changed since my 2006 column and, as a consequence, my position on the stadium question might cost me my job – that Lynch might see me as an obstructionist.”
Sullivan had not been an obstructionist. He had been a reporter asking questions and forming opinions, which is what the best columnists at real newspapers do. “My position has been that the paper’s primary responsibility is to protect the public from another bad deal, such as the one that resulted in San Diego (taxpayers) agreeing to guarantee sellouts for the Chargers. That document was so badly drafted that even a sportswriter could see its flaws: no limit to liability, no cap on ticket prices. I have felt that the paper dropped the ball in failing to scrutinize that deals (years before my arrival) and should be exceedingly careful in endorsing another stadium deal. Mr. Lynch appears to be of a mind to make the stadium happen and bulldoze the opposition or even those who raise questions.”
At age 57, Sullivan has embraced, truly if lightly, the media revolution. He has built a social media presence on Twitter and Facebook. He does all the radio, TV, and promotional appearances that have become the pro bono duties of a metropolitan sports columnist. And yet, like many journalists, he has asked in staff meetings at some volume the questions that every thinking journalist has asked for the last five years: How can we be expected to do more with less? How can we do right by the printed paper which makes 95 percent of the money while being asked to produce added content for the website? In short, and not that he ever said such a thing but I, for one, have often asked: Have all newspaper executives lost their minds?
So, on that fateful Wednesday with a message from Light on his computer screen, Sullivan suspected trouble. “For two days,” he said by email, “I attempted to ascertain the subject of this meeting without success. Tracked Light down in the newsroom Thursday and he claimed he couldn’t talk, and that he would talk to me Friday. When I was admitted to his office, he was talking on his cell phone, pointed me to a chair at his conference table and closed the door. When he got off the phone and sat down, he blithely said something about how I had been right (in November), that John Lynch had gotten me. I don’t remember much after that — too shocked . . .My shock quickly morphed into anger. I am told I slammed his door pretty hard on the way out.”
Sullivan doesn’t know what’s next for him. He has asked an intermediary to arrange a face-to-face meeting with Lynch. He has spoken to newspaper sports editors in major markets. He calls himself “mobile and motivated.” A couple days after the firing, Sullivan dropped in a note on his Facebook page. “A sports editor prone to overstatement says I am the Albert Pujols of sportswriter free agents,” he wrote. And then, ever the columnist looking for the next bright analogy, he said, “Well, I am grumpy and having a bad year.”
Tim and I aren't friends, but we know each other and share the mutual respect that goes with being members of the small fraternity of major metro sports columnists. Sadly, we also are members of the growing fraternity of ex-columnists.
For several years, we were "teammates" of sorts. I was the Copley Newspapers sports columnist in Chicago and he worked for the Copley-owned Union-Tribune.
The beginning of the end for both of us was the sad day in 2007 when David Copley sold most of his journalism holdings (but not his hometown Union-Tribune) to GateHouse Media.
I knew I soon would be deemed a luxury they couldn't afford ... and that's just what happened in January 2009, when I received a daunting email from my editor telling me to go to a meeting the next day. As I told my wife: "I don't think the meeting is to tell me I won the Pulitzer."
Shortly after I was laid off, Copley sold the Union-Tribune to a private investment group, which in turn sold the paper to the present owner. The ensuing move to hire John Lynch as CEO doomed Tim Sullivan.
Though he was fired for a different reason than I was, shedding his salary must have delighted the company's honchos. Maybe, like the evil GateHouse gang that gutted our newsroom, they'll celebrate Tim's departure by giving themselves raises and bonuses.
I was only 48 when I was thrown out with the trash. Like Tim, I had a sterling reputation as a journalist, a list of awards on my resume and a willingness to work hard. Here's hoping he has better national connections than I did -- and better luck, too. With newspapers and Web sites loathe to add salary, he'll need lots of the latter.
Best wishes, Tim.